The Zombie Hand: Fact and Fiction Intersect


I just read a scientific text that straddles the boundary between neurology and philosophy, and found fascinating resonances with my favorite zombie story. Both books explore the nature of the self. How do I know what is me and what is not-me? It’s not as simple as it seems.

Let’s start with the science: The Man Who Wasn’t There by Anil Ananthaswamy. He explores the nature of the self primarily in two ways: studying individuals whose sense of self has been distorted in some way, and examining brain scans linking some forms of neural activity with some aspects of the self. The individual stories of disability and triumph were fascinating. From my perspective, though, the book had two weaknesses. One is that it’s very heavy on brain anatomy (and I say this as a person who knows her way around the major regions modestly well). The other is that the theoretical and philosophical arguments get very abstruse, mostly because we hardly know what the right questions are, much less how to answer them. In cognitive psychology, the question of how self-awareness arises from the processes of the brain is called the “hard problem,” and that’s no joke. Today, though, I want to focus on one small thing he mentions. All of us, even those with perfectly intact brains, will, under the right circumstances, find our sense of self stretching in odd ways. The most famous of these circumstances is known as the rubber hand illusion. Participants see a rubber hand that’s positioned next to their real hand, which is out of sight, and a researcher strokes both hands in an identical fashion. The sight of the rubber hand being stroked and the feeling of the real hand being stroked, become blurred, and participants may become convinced that the rubber hand in front of them is their real, actual hand. Our sense of what is and is not our body can be distorted very simply, and we can wind up accepting inanimate objects as part of our selves.

Which brings me to my favorite zombie story: Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory. The plot hinges on an interesting solution to the central zombie dilemma: how can a dead body continue to move and function when there is no blood pumping and some key parts are missing completely? Part of the magic of the zombie virus, Gregory imagines, is that if the brain decides something is part of the body, then the brain has dominion of that thing and can move and control it. There’s a character in the book with a mechanical hand that’s basically just a collection of finger-pieces, and it functions without any mechanical linkages. It works because he believes it will work. He believes this is his hand, so he can use it like his hand.

In real life, of course, the rubber hand illusion will never give someone the ability to use that rubber hand. But it’s easy to see how the two ideas work together. There is a kind of magic in how our brains build up our sense of our selves, adjusting that sense on the fly to adapt to changing circumstances. If this inner sense of self could magically alter the nature of reality, well, then we’d have zombies.

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